Next up on our Patreon preview week is a representative example of an occasional series I have going on there called “Retro Comics Corner” where I take a break from reviewing contemporary comics to cast a critical eye on older stuff. If you fid it to your liking, please consider signing up for said Patreon, a link to which will follow this review.
What a long, strange trip it’s been for Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s MARSHAL LAW. Originally “green-lit” by Archie Goodwin, then-head honcho of Marvel’s creator-owned Epic Comics line, back in 1987 as a kind of “last word” on super-hero deconstruction, the creators followed Goodwin out the door when he left for DC, but opted not to join him there, instead throwing in their lot with short-lived British comics publishing venture Apocalypse (where Mills was put in charge of the equally-shot-lived TOXIC! anthology title) before returning the project back to these shores via Dark Horse. The eventual end of the comic (and the character) as a going concern didn’t mean Mills and O’Neill were done with their vagabond ways, though —
In 2010, Top Shelf announced that they had entered into an agreement with the pair to publish an omnibus collection of all of Marshal’s appearances, even his late-period crossovers with Erik Larsen’s SAVAGE DRAGON, Clive Barker’s PINHEAD, and Doug Mahnke’s THE MASK, but somehow that fell by the wayside, and when we finally DID get a “definitive” MARSHAL LAW book, it came in the form of DC’s 2013 MARSHAL LAW : THE DELUXE EDITION, a snazzy hardcover that was notably WITHOUT the “team-up” comics which had originally been slated for inclusion. Methinks copyright issues are the primary reason that this supposedly “complete” collection isn’t, in fact, complete, but still — at nearly 500 pages, it’s at the very least a COMPREHENSIVE volume by anyone’s definition of the word.
It’s also a DAMNED uneven one, truth be told. but the responsibility for that should be laid squarely on the shoulders of Mills and O’Neill themselves, who kept this concept going well beyond it’s “sell-by” date, with each outing delivering diminishing returns until all that was left was hollow self-parody. Make no mistake, though : the first MARSHAL LAW series, latterly sub-titled “Fear And Loathing,” is great fun and succeeds wildly in chiseling an epitaph on the entire concept of the super-hero in general. Sure, there’s a somewhat predictable mystery story shoehorned into the proceedings that revolves around one of the more painfully obvious “MacGuffins” you’re ever likely to come across, but that’s not REALLY what the comic was about, per se : rather, it was about Mills and O’Neill venting their spleen on super-heroes on a conceptual level, and on the hyper-violent “realistic” iterations of them that were polluting the comics landscape at the time in particular. Sure, it was self-indulgent to the point of being borderline-masturbatory, but that was the whole POINT. These two hated super-heroes, and even more than that hated what had BECOME of super-heroes, and they wanted to hammer that hatred home in a manner that mocked and ridiculed the genre’s excesses by dialing them up to 11. This is a narrow creative remit, to be sure, but they hit it out of the park.
Lost in all the hubbub, though, is the obvious debt the whole premise owed to JUDGE DREDD, with Marshal himself essentially being a stand-in for his more famous predecessor and the ruined post-apocalyptic hellscape of San Futuro functioning as Mills and O’Neill’s very own Mega-City One. Both protagonist and city were exceptionally well thought-out, however, it must be said, and very few exercises in “borrowed” world-building have anywhere near the effort put into them that this one did. No points for originality, then, but points APLENTY for execution.
Cracks in the firmament began to show pretty quickly after “Fear And Loathing,” though : when next we encountered Marshal, it was in a series of oversized one-offs that would pop up sporadically, with dead giveaways about the plots of each being baked right into the titles : “Marshal Law Takes Manhattan,” “Kingdom Of The Blind,” “The Hateful Dead,” and “Super Babylon” won’t leave anyone wondering what the hell is happening in the books themselves, and it’s no exaggeration to say that each is more concerned with upping the ante in terms of overall OTT-ness than they are about anything else. Kudos to O’Neill for clearly having a blast delineating all the carnage Mills could throw his way, but by the time of Marshal’s final solo adventure, the two-part “Secret Tribunal,” the comic was little more than a “greatest hits” pastiche forever seeking to re-capture some frisson of its faded glory. There was still a fair amount of stupid fun to be had for readers, sure, but even then most of that stupid fun came tinged with hollow reminders of just how fucking COOL this comic USED to be.
By the time this book ends, then, it’s honestly no stretch to say that you’ll be rather glad it’s over, but there are a smattering of extras on hand to make you feel good about the purchase, including a highly-detailed full color map of San Futuro, some “virgin” cover art, and a couple of early-version character sketches. None of this is earth-shaking stuff by any stretch, and my understanding is that much of it is “ported over” from an earlier Graphitti Designs collection of “Fear And Loathing” and “Marshal Law Takes Manhattan” that boasts much more in terms of backmatter (good luck finding that!), but again : this is all more than exhaustive enough for anyone other than the hardest of hard-core fans. Unless you happen to number yourself among that lot, then, the MAIN value to be had from this collection is twofold : it reminds you of just how apropos for its time the first MARSHAL LAW series was — and of how quickly the times passed poor old Marshal by. “Fear And Loathing” is certainly good enough to DESERVE to stand as a capstone on the entire concept of ultra-violent, “mature” super-hero revisionism, but the fact that it DOESN’T is at least partially down to Mills and O’Neill’s decision to keep the concept going beyond that point.
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